Saturday, May 25, 2013

Success With A Fish Market Education


The entire Irish family was walking home in early evening, back to their Irish tenement neighborhood.  They had just come from burying their immigrant husband and father in a pauper's grave in New York City.  Back then, if the head of the household died the state would intervene and put the children in state sponsored foster homes.  

The mother was despondent, declared "I can't go on".  The eldest son, thirteen year old Al, said, "don't fret mother"..."I'll take care of this family".

And so he did.  He took a job in a fish market, carrying heavy barrels of fish from storage to shelf.  He worked 13 hours a day, seven days a week, and carried his $12 dollar weekly paycheck home to his mother.  Some nights, after his work in the fish market, he'd stop in an Irish saloon, stand next to a support pillar and belt out old sentimental Irish tunes to cold hard drinkers, tired after a day of brutal labor.  At first no one paid attention.  But after several nights of serenading, with a hat out to catch the stray penny or two, the clientele began taking a liking to the kid.

Soon the Tammany Hall pols hanging out at the bar took notice.  They learned more about the hard working young fish monger who knew all the old songs.  They gave him a second job as a message runner.  For seven years the kid got his only education studying human behavior at the fish market and then listening to Tammany Hall politicians plot strategy in the evenings.

Tammany was impressed with the kid with the satchel of Irish songs and a natural bent for getting along with people, especially the Italian and Irish immigrants in the tenement wards of the big city.
They ran him for sheriff in an outlying ward and he won.  He would soon move up to a seat in the New York statehouse in Albany.

When Al arrived in Albany he carried with him no school diplomas and an ignorance of the written word.  His only tools for the job were a willingness to work hard at any task given.  For the first two years the entire statehouse ignored him.  He was given no committee assignments and no one spoke a word to him.  

So, because Al knew nothing of politics, and nothing of the law, and could barely read, he sat up late at night in Albany and learned to read every word of every line of every legislative bill that passed through the Statehouse.  Soon Al became the most knowledgeable legislator in Albany and his peers and his seniors turned to him for answers to their questions.  

And while Al was peering over every word of legislation he kept his ears peeled to the woes of his Italian and Irish constituents in the tenements back home.  He hadn't forgotten those 80 hour work weeks at the fish market and his Irish brothers laboring to build the Brooklyn Bridge for two dollars a day.

And then one fine March evening the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory caught fire.  Hundreds of young women were trapped on the upper floors because management had locked all exit doors from the outside in an effort to keep labor organizers out of the building.  Over a hundred young girls either burned to death or jumped to their death that tragic evening.  The tragedy finally awoke all of New York City to the need of labor reform.

When those in the statehouse sensed the immediate demands for reforms they turned to Al to get them done.  When Al was done children under 14 were banned from the sweat factories, health and environmental laws were passed to clean up the work place, mandatory work hours were reduced, and work breaks and disability plans were enacted.  

Those sweeping reforms swept Al right into the Governor's mansion.  Adored by the working man, Al would repeatedly win term after term as Governor of New York.  And in 1928 Al would run for President of The United States.  He would lose because he was Irish Catholic and America would need another thirty years or so to put away their religious biases.

In the 1930's Al moved away from the Democratic Party.  New York's Tammany Hall had become so corrupt their graft prevented any help for those suffering from the Great Depression.  His one time ally, Franklin Roosevelt had turned to dictatorial socialism and Al could no longer support him.

Al died in 1944, just five months after his dear wife passed.  But Al's legacy to working America would live on.  Each year since his death New York City hosts a dinner in honor of Al.  Proceeds go toward health care for the needy.  And each year the most prominent politicians in the land attend.  The night is filled with laughter as irreverent political humor is thrown about by both political parties.  And both parties aspire to the love that his constituents bestowed upon him.  They call that little annual love fest The Al Smith Dinner.

In honor of a poor Irish Catholic fish monger who proved the American Dream is real indeed.